The way some describe it, California's energy policies are the model for the nation. The Obama administration has even issued regulations designed to make the country "act more like California," as the Los Angeles Times put it. But why should the rest of America be jealous of our current summer of blackouts?
The Golden State's admirers have overlooked some inconvenient truths about its energy landscape: We struggle with some of the highest electric bills in the country. We also have an electricity grid that is increasingly unstable, especially during extreme weather events such as the recent heat wave that left thousands in Southern California without power. Ironically, this grid instability has forced us to look to our neighboring states for power -- power generated from energy sources that are supposed to be anathema.
This is all the result of decades of propping up politically favored energy sources, especially wind and solar, at the expense of more affordable, reliable ones such as nuclear, coal and natural gas.
One of the first disruptive policies was the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard, signed into law in 2002 and requiring that 20 percent of California's electricity come from renewables by 2017. A 2006 addendum moved the target date up to 2010, which the state achieved by the end of 2011, while a 2011 law set a new goal of 33 percent by 2020. As of this year, roughly 29 percent of California's energy came from such sources. Just last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law yet another update, this one targeting 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. Many states have since enacted their own versions of these portfolio standards.
Other mandates have contributed, too. In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order requiring that California slash its greenhouse-gas emissions until they were 80 percent below 1990 levels. The following year, he signed a law implementing a de-facto ban on the construction of new coal plants, which have provided some of the state's most affordable power. A mix of political and activist pressure also led to the shuttering of California's nuclear power. In the past three years, the last two nuclear power plants announced plans to shut down. This is in spite of the fact that nuclear energy produces zero carbon emissions.
These policies have left an obvious gap in California's electricity grid, leading to a mad rush to fill it with wind and solar power. Yet a 2015 analysis of federal data by the Institute for Energy Research documents that electricity from wind farms is roughly two to four times more expensive than power from traditional sources. The data on solar energy is unclear, but existing evidence points to it being even more expensive.
All of this goes a long way toward explaining our sky-high electricity prices. Residential electricity rates in California are 33 percent higher than the national average, a burden that falls hardest on lower-income families. In remarks last month at a renewable-energy conference, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged the "regressive nature to some of these things" -- "these things" referring to our state's costly energy mandates. If our leaders know that their policies are hurting the poor, why charge ahead with them or, even worse, export them to other states?
High electricity bills aren't our only power problem. Wind and solar power often can't keep up with Californians' energy needs. On some days they produce excess power, which is hard to capture and reuse, but on other days they fall short. This explains why state regulators warned Southern Californians about rolling blackouts this summer. In fact, California leads the nation in power outages, with 417 in 2015 -- more than double the number of the next-hardest-hit state, Texas.
An unstable energy grid can be disastrous for our economy, so the Golden State now has to look elsewhere to keep the lights on, especially in Southern California. Plants in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah have helped fill the gap, but there's a catch: They're all coal-powered. While only 0.3 percent of California's in-state-generated electricity comes from coal, S&P Global Market Intelligence estimates that up to 50 percent of the power used in Southern California comes from out-of-state coal. Why? Because it has the affordability and reliability that the state so desperately needs.
The human cost of this energy folly will get worse as California implements more and more senseless laws and regulations. One thing is certain: The rest of America has no reason to adopt the energy policies that have produced a calamity for California.